Preschool Development Grants Have the Right Priorities

Yesterday at the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Secretary Duncan announced the opening of the Preschool Development Grant competition. This $250 million grant competition, which was authorized under the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, aims to support states in expanding access to high-quality pre-K for 4-year-olds in high-need communities. Like Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grants, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services will jointly administer the Preschool Development Grants.

Most states have a publicly funded pre-K program, and numerous states increased their investments this year. Still, access to high-quality programs remains limited throughout much of the country. According to the Department of Education, “less than one-third of all four-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in state preschool programs.” In many states the number of seats has not kept up with the high demand, leaving thousands of eligible children on waiting lists, unable to enroll.  And as NIEER has documented in its annual State of Preschool yearbook, pre-K access varies significantly among states, with 10 states currently providing no state-level program at all.

[caption id="attachment_5799" align="aligncenter" width="728"]Source: National Institute for Early Education Research Source: National Institute for Early Education Research[/caption]

The Preschool Development Grant application deals with this variation by allowing states to apply for one of two grants, depending on how robust their existing programs are. States like Utah and Alabama that serve less than 10 percent of 4-year-olds through state-funded programs can apply for a development grant. States with larger public pre-K programs and/or a RTT-ELC grant, like Oklahoma or New Jersey, are eligible to apply for an expansion grant. (The Notice Inviting Applications lays out which states are eligible for which grant.) The Departments have allotted $80 million of funding for development grants, with awards ranging from $5-$20 million per year for four years; and $160 million for expansion grants, with awards from $10-$35 million per year for four years. While the number of awardees will depend on largely on the number of quality applications, the Departments anticipate awarding between five and eight development grants and seven to 12 expansion grants.

The requirements of the two grants also differ based on state’s needs. To qualify for a development grant, states must present a plan to increase access to high-quality programs for children in at least one high-need community (as defined by the state). States vying for an expansion grant must do the same in at least two high-need communities. States can use up to 35 percent of the development award and only up to 5 percent of the expansion award for infrastructure and quality improvements. Successful expansion grant applications will likely already have the capacity to support high-quality pre-K programs.

Preschool Development Grants are not intended to simply add more seats to just any existing state-level program; there is a strong focus on program quality. The Departments’ definition for high-quality preschool program is extensive. It includes the following criteria (and more):

  • High staff qualifications and high quality professional development
  • Staff salaries comparable to local elementary school teachers
  • Low child-staff ratios
  • Small class sizes
  • A full school day equivalent to that at a public elementary school
  • Developmentally appropriate instruction
  • Evidence-based curricula
Research suggests that these elements are associated with higher-quality programs, and quality is essential to children’s success.

The Preschool Development Grant includes three competitive priorities. One of them is strengthening state’s birth-through-third-grade continuum, acknowledging that pre-K is not meant to be a stand-alone program, but should be part of a larger educational continuum. This same focus is a requirement for states in the Selection Criteria—worth up to 20 points. For the additional 10 points under the competitive priority, states can extend this work further into a specific community or to a specific subgroup, such as dual language learners or special education students.

As my colleagues explain in Beyond Subprime Learning, a strong start means access to high-quality learning experiences in pre-K and the elementary years. Streamlining and increasing coordination between early childhood programs and elementary school reassures that the benefits of pre-K are sustained. The application provides examples of ways to strengthen the birth-through-third-grade continuum, such as offering high-quality infant and toddler care, kindergarten that lasts a full school day, and before- and after-care services. We’re very glad to see this included in the Selection Criteria, and pleased that the Departments ask states to recognize the importance of building comprehensive systems that serve children throughout their early years. After all, some research suggests that opportunity and learning gaps start as early as 18 months, so children need to have quality learning opportunities from birth through third grade.

States can also receive additional points on their application if they contribute matching funds. Preschool Development Grant awards last up to four years, but the programs created under them are intended to last well beyond that. So state investment is just as important as federal investment if these programs are to sustain themselves when the grant period ends. As my colleagues have pointed out, “the federal government funds only about 12 percent of K–12 education; states and school districts share the rest of the costs almost evenly. Pre-K should be no different.” Federal funding is needed to help some states establish the appropriate infrastructure and improve current programs, but it can’t be merely a substitute for state investment.

Finally, states can earn additional points for agreeing to use at least 50 percent of the grant award to create new slots in high-quality preschool programs.

The Preschool Development Grants are part of President Obama’s “Preschool for All” initiative and are intended to help states build their capacity to eventually provide voluntary pre-K for all low- and middle-income four-year-olds. While the Obama administration waits (at least for the foreseeable future) for Congress to approve the  $75 billion requested for this initiative, the Preschool Development Grants are an opportunity for states to expand access to those children who could benefit most from high-quality early education. The Strong Start Acts, introduced in both houses of Congress this past year, call for a similar investment in early education but have also been put on hold. However, the $250 million that was included in this year’s budget bill for Preschool Development Grants does show at least some support on both sides for the aisle for additional investment in pre-K.

Applications are due on October 14, 2014 and the grants will be awarded before the end of the calendar year.

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Author:

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Education Education team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade

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